Peter Clarke invoked a rarely-used protocol forcing David Gauke to respond publicly after inspectors found high levels of violence, filthy cells and poor training and education.
Mr Clarke warned the Justice Secretary that the category B men’s prison had not improved at all despite being placed in special measures after a worrying inspection in 2017.
In the letter, Mr Clarke said inspectors had found rates of self-harm had increased since 2017 and remained higher than most local prisons.
Despite two suicides since the last inspection, recommendations for improvements had not been implemented and inspectors saw instances of “very poor” care of at-risk prisoners.
Inspectors also found the prison to be dirty, with many of the 600-plus inmates living in overcrowded cells.
Recorded levels of violence, a lot of it serious, were found to have increased since the 2017 inspection, and was much higher than average for local prisons.
Nearly two thirds of prisoners said they had felt unsafe at some point while held in HMP Bristol, and over a third said the currently felt unsafe.
A hotline for family and friends of prisoners in crisis to report their concerns had not been checked for over two weeks before the inspections, Mr Clarke said.
It was found the prison had enough activity places for all prisoners to take part in education, training or work for at least part of the day, but only half of prisoners had been allocated an activity.
Of these, on average only half attended their activity.
Under the terms of the urgent notification protocol, within a month the justice secretary must come up with a plan to improve the prison.
In the letter, Mr Clarke said: “The chronic and seemingly intractable failings at Bristol have now been evident for the best part of a decade.”
He added the prison had “demonstrably been in a state of drift and decline for many years” and that additional investment had not led to any visible improvement in conditions.
Mr Clarke said: “Some of the efforts to improve have, in reality, been a case of too little, too late.
“Some we saw had only just been implemented, and some were introduced during the inspection itself.
“On the basis of this latest inspection, I can have no confidence that HMP Bristol will achieve coherent, meaningful or sustained improvement in the future.”
The urgent notification protocol was added to the existing protocol between the prisons’ inspectorate and the Ministry of Justice in November 2017, signed by then-justice secretary David Lidington.
Bristol is the fifth prison to trigger the protocol since it came into force, Mr Clarke has also demanded urgent action over HMPs Nottingham, Birmingham, Bedford and Exeter.
The unannounced inspection took place between May 20 and June 7 of this year.
Prisons Minister Robert Buckland said: “We know Bristol faces serious challenges and we have been providing additional support.
“That has resulted in more prison officers and reductions in drug use, but some of the chief inspector’s findings make very difficult reading and it is clear that much more work is needed.
“We have immediately addressed the issues around prisoner phone support lines to make sure those problems can never happen again, and will publish an action plan within 28 days to reduce violence and self-harm and help turn the prison around.”
CHIEF INSPECTOR’S KEY FINDINGS
• Bristol is a frontline local prison, receiving prisoners from the courts, many with vulnerabilities and often with no previous experience of prison. In light of this, we were disappointed to see first night arrangements had only improved marginally and that many of these improvements were only introduced during the course of the inspection.
• In our survey, nearly two-thirds of prisoners said they had felt unsafe at some point during their stay at the prison, with over a third feeling unsafe at the time of the inspection itself. Recorded violence, much of it serious, had increased since our last inspection and was much higher than the average for local prisons. We saw that there was a new violence reduction strategy, some good security initiatives and some very important work to combat illegal drugs, but some of this was poorly coordinated, not measured for effectiveness and not applied with sufficient rigour to give us the assurance it will be impactful or sustained. Despite the high levels of violence, there were no prisoners being managed under CSIP (the agreed casework approach to managing perpetrators and victims of violence), which meant that perpetrators were not being monitored and challenged and victims were not being supported.
• The use of segregation, the number of adjudications and use of force incidents were all high and, to a large extent, reflected the levels of violence in the prison. Most work to improve processes was very recent and untested. Work to incentivise prisoners was too new to assess its effectiveness, and the poor management of adjudications led to a situation where so many charges were not proceeded with that it risked creating a culture of near impunity for those prisoners who behaved poorly. Of the 1,075 adjudications so far in 2019, only 400 had reached a conclusion.
• The rate of self-harm had increased since the last inspection and remained higher than most other local prisons. There had been two self-inflicted deaths since our last inspection, and significant recommendations made following Prisons and Probation Ombudsman investigations had not been implemented. An extraordinarily high number of prisoners – one in 10 – were identified as being at risk of suicide and self-harm and were being managed through assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management processes. We believe this was unmanageable. There was no effective strategy to reduce levels of self-harm and this was an indication of risk aversion rather than considered risk management. This was poor practice and potentially an impediment to care for those in crisis.
• We saw examples of very poor care for prisoners identified as being at risk of suicide and self-harm. One prisoner being managed on ACCT became very distressed one evening and smashed up his cell. Despite this, staff did not review his case that evening, nor was the level of observations on him increased. He was left overnight, and all the following day, in his damaged cell.
• Our confidence in the prison’s competence to support those at risk of self-harm was severely undermined when we found that prisoners had been unable to telephone the Samaritans from their in-cell phones since 15 May 2019 because the prison had not kept the number topped up with credit.
• We were extremely concerned to find that a hotline for the family and friends of those in crisis, to call and report their concerns, had not been checked by staff at all for the two weeks before the inspection. When inspectors asked for records, staff retrieved 21 voicemail messages which required action. Three of the prisoners concerned had already been released from Bristol.
• When we last inspected we were concerned about the lack of care, particularly social care for some very vulnerable prisoners with physical disabilities. At this inspection, the social care arrangements were still completely inadequate, leaving several prisoners we observed with unmet care needs. One of these men had been at the prison since October 2018. He was not able to walk unaided. He had a wheelchair, but it did not fit through his cell door. His cell had no adjustments made and he spent most of his day lying in bed, with a urine bottle tucked under his sheets. A fellow prisoner helped him by getting his meals, making sure he had clean bedding and clothing and lifting him in and out of his cell, but this prisoner was neither trained nor supervised. An initial social care referral was made in December 2018. A care assessment was made during our inspection on 5 June.
• Most accommodation remained bleak and grubby with too many overcrowded cells. C and G wings were the poorest environments. There remained a substantial backlog of maintenance work, infestations of cockroaches were common and many cells lacked sufficient basic furniture. A bulk order of new furniture had been placed in January 2019, but had still not arrived.
• There were currently sufficient activity places for all prisoners to engage in education, training or work for at least part of the day, yet only half had been allocated and of these on average only about half attended. Leaders and managers had not prioritised purposeful activity, were largely unaware of the poor attendance rates, and their expectations were too low, despite significant investment in education facilities. Classes were often cancelled. The quality of teaching, learning and assessment was weak: too many prisoners failed to make any progress, complete their course or gain any qualification or tangible outcome. Time out of cell for the many prisoners not allocated to activity was limited to around two hours each day, and during the working day we found just under a third of prisoners locked in their cells.
• Bristol prison has an important role to play in resettling and reintegrating the many prisoners it releases. About 80 prisoners were released from Bristol every month, but a staggering 47% were released homeless or into temporary accommodation, which did little to enhance their chances of rehabilitation.
Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales, Mark Leech, writes:
The one thing that stands out about this Urgent Notification is not the shocking conditions, squalor, lack of decency, care of vulnerable prisoners (whose critical care telephone line had not been answered in a fortnight) nor the high levels of violence, all that regrettably is part and parcel of the criteria for an Urgent Notification and I expected all that.
What is most concerning is that all of that took place in a prison that was both fully staffed and which has, for the last two years, been subject to HM Prison and Probation Service ‘Special Measures’ designed to bring failing prisons back up to par with added resources and managerial input.
In the words of the Chief Inspector Peter Clarke, Special Measures “have clearly failed at HM Prison Bristol.”
What’s more the prison clearly had no excuse or explanation for its failings either:
“Despite repeated requests, the prison failed to provide us with any meaningful objectives, action plans or assessment of the impact of ‘special measures’” wrote the Chief Inspector.
Of the 76 recommendations made by the Prisons Inspectorate in 2017 at HMP Bristol, by the time of this visit a dismal 22 had been achieved – and when it came to safety there was even more incredulity – especially after two years added senior Ministry of Justice ‘special measures’ attention:
“Incredibly, for a prison that has been judged as unsafe in successive inspections, only one of the 11 recommendations made under ‘safety’ in 2017 had been fully achieved…
“In 2017 I had grounds to think that the leadership at Bristol might be able to make some progress, called for them to be allowed to continue at Bristol, and expressed some cautious optimism.
“Two years later, there has been no significant improvement. My understanding is that ‘special measures’ are intended to provide support for the Governor of a struggling prison.
“If that is the intention, they have clearly failed at HMP Bristol.”
The Chief Inspector’s Urgent Notification is a damning assessment of failure in a fully staffed prison, subject to extra resources and the added management support ‘special measures’ are designed to deliver, and which should never have found itself in this position in a month of Sundays.
The Prison Officers Association were quick off the blocks, after news of the Urgent Notification was leaked two days ago to the BBC prior to its publication today; National Chairman Mark Fairhurst said on Twitter:
“HMP Bristol gets an [Urgent Notification] not because of a poor Governor or a lack of committed staff. It’s because of a lack of investment and a reluctance to act at the very top. Start listening to your staff and @POAUnion and let’s make our prisons safe/ decent.”
The uncomfortable reality for Mark Fairhurst, however, is that there has been investment, and far from a reluctance to act from the top, there has been more than two years’ worth of added attention at Bristol.
All the evidence points to failure by the prison itself to make the most of the opportunity special measures gave to it, and that failure starts and ends at a local level, indeed right at the heart of the prison in Bristol itself.